ST. PETERSBURG -- For a while Tuesday night, it seemed as if Joe Maddon's latest "extemporaneous" plan -- to use his word -- was going to work flawlessly. The Rays had overcome a one-inning start from Jeremy Hellickson, gotten out of a jam in a way that would have made Harry Houdini proud and seemingly turned the tide of Game 4 in their direction.
The Rays' bullpen was brilliant for five innings against the Red Sox in Game 4 of the American League Division Series, and they got a little help from some sharp defense. But it all came crashing down in the seventh, when two of Tampa Bay's most reliable relievers gave up two runs on a wild pitch and an infield single, and the Rays went on to lose, 3-1.
"It was an interesting game. Again, we needed to score more runs against their pitching," Maddon said. "We've had a hard time with that, but I thought our bullpen was fabulous."
It was busy, too. The Rays set a postseason record by using nine pitchers in a nine-inning game and tied the overall playoff record. They used the most pitchers in a nine-inning game in franchise history as well.
After Hellickson worked a nearly flawless first inning, retiring three Red Sox hitters on 12 pitches, he lost command of the strike zone as soon as he came out for the second. Hellickson threw eight straight balls to David Ortiz and Mike Napoli before giving up a single to Daniel Nava, and so ended the shortest start in Rays postseason history.
That's when Maddon walked to the mound, tapped his right arm and brought Hellickson's night to an end after only 22 pitches. He pitched one-plus inning and gave up one hit, and by the time veteran reliever Jamey Wright was done, he wasn't even charged with a run.
"Thank you, Jamey," Hellickson deadpanned afterward.
He understood that the second inning of an elimination game was no time for the Rays to wait for him to "figure it out" on the mound.
It was only the seventh time since 1903 that a starting pitcher was lifted after recording three outs or fewer with no runs allowed in a postseason game, and surely some of those were injury-related. Reds starter Johnny Cueto, for example, was pulled after throwing eight pitches in a National League Division Series start against San Francisco last year because of pain in the right side of his back.
But in came Wright, playing in the postseason for the first time in his 18-year career and inheriting a bases-loaded jam with no outs and Jarrod Saltalamacchia headed to the plate. Wright caught the Red Sox catcher looking at strike three, a 77-mph curveball, prompting raucous cheers from the home crowd at Tropicana Field.
He hadn't escaped yet, though. Boston shortstop Stephen Drew swung at the first pitch he saw and lined it toward first baseman James Loney, who quickly left his feet, reached up and barely snared the line drive in the webbing of his glove. Realizing he didn't have a play at first base, Loney made an off-balance throw to second base, where Yunel Escobar scooped the ball out of the dirt in time to force out Napoli and end the inning.
It was the first time in Wright's 18-year career that he had inherited a situation with the bases loaded and no outs without allowing at least one run to score. And it was seemingly a sign that the night was going in the Rays' favor.
"When we lined into the double play, it felt like it was -- kind of took the air out of our sails a little bit," Red Sox manager John Farrell said.
"That's what we're down there for," added Wright.
That wasn't the plan, of course. Maddon wanted Hellickson to get through Boston's lineup at least once, preferably to record 12 outs before handing it over to Alex Torres. But the relief corps was summoned to work earlier than expected, as Wright pitched an inning, Matt Moore pitched two and Torres put together two dominant frames before Maddon finally set up his late-inning trio of Jake McGee, Joel Peralta and Fernando Rodney for the seventh, eighth and ninth.
"Having that double play get turned with Yunel scooping it up like that, that's huge for us," Moore said. "That's the momentum that I think carried us to have the ability to throw up those zeros there."
But just when everything started going according to plan, it fell apart in the seventh. McGee recorded one out then walked pinch-hitter Xander Bogaerts. He struck out Will Middlebrooks, then Jacoby Ellsbury kept the inning alive and put runners on the corners with a single to right field.
In came Peralta, the Rays' steady setup man. His first pitch was a curveball in the dirt, and it bounced away from catcher Jose Lobaton, allowing Bogaerts to score and Ellsbury, who was stealing on the pitch, to go all the way around to third base. Later in the at-bat, Shane Victorino beat out an infield single to Escobar, scoring Ellsbury and turning the Rays' one-run lead into an equal deficit.
The Rays couldn't recover from that, as Rodney was charged with a run in the ninth inning. It got to the point where, if the game had gone to extras, Game 5 starter David Price would have pitched.
Maddon would have left the Game 5 planning for another day, pleased that he had escaped to play another day. Instead, Maddon's "extemporaneous" bullpen scheme was brought down by a few dings and dents in the final innings.
"They got the runs on a wild pitch and an infield single and stuff, so it wasn't like we gave up a lot of hits or a lot of home runs," McGee said. "It was just kind of weird how everything unfolded."